“The Science of America’s Dueling Political Narratives
Elections aren’t won on the basis of policies; they’re won on the basis of the stories each side tells about itself and its values
By Laura Akers
Laura Akers, Ph.D. is a research psychologist at the Oregon Research Institute. Follow her work at http://meta-narrator.com or on Twitter @meta_narrator.
The science of metanarratives and how we respond to them is still in its infancy. Our research team, headed by psychologist Gerard Saucier, has uncovered the metanarratives typical of terrorists and genocidal leaders worldwide. More broadly, my own work seeks to understand how the structure and features of metanarratives can elicit emotional responses, and how social factors influence public reactions.
Emotions arise when we make comparisons relevant to our own needs and desires. We contrast our present circumstances with the future, the past and alternative versions of today. Improvements make us happy and inspire us; losses sadden or frustrate us. If we can blame someone else for our loss, we may become angry with them. And if we’re faced with threats, our fear can motivate action. As with fiction, we can categorize metanarratives by their emotional “genres,” such as progress (pride, optimism) or looming catastrophe (fear).
As cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Drew Westen remind us, it’s emotion that wins elections.
The public doesn’t accept every metanarrative it’s offered. We tend to be loyal to the cultural beliefs favored by our social circles and encouraged by our leaders. Even then, some voters stay open to alternatives, if there’s enough dissonance between the party line and their own experiences.”